Despite recent funding issues, Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne has made it clear that his vision to deliver a railway powered by digital technology should remain a catalyst for future industry growth. Indeed, Network Rail’s multi-million pound programme of investment in a series of signalling and telecoms initiatives will lay the foundations for a safer and more reliable railway. The opportunities these projects create for the rail industry are of a scale not seen for decades.

This includes both the new FTNx telecommunications network and the planned upgrade of the signalling infrastructure to the European Train Control System (ETCS). These ambitious schemes will boost passenger capacity by up to 40%, improve railway safety and deliver a better customer experience for the traveller.

FTNx – the network of the future

Without doubt, FTNx is one of the rail industry’s most crucial programmes. Network Rail’s planned transition to a robust carrier-class network infrastructure will enable a broad range of vital future network services. This includes the signalling upgrade to ETCS, and will also enable connectivity for an assortment of assets ranging from CCTV to smart infrastructure sensors and, possibly, consumer devices. Indeed, FTNx is integral for the distribution of information for rail signalling and electrification control.

Rail telecoms specialist Alan Dick Communications (ADComms) is partnering with Telefonica and Cisco to transition the UK’s legacy rail network by delivering the FTNx network. Transmission capacity is based around a fibre cable network which is laid alongside all main and secondary routes.

Jason Pearce, CEO of ADComms, explained that FTNx will also help to yield substantial safety improvements for the industry: “The ability to link to consumer devices could, for example, lead to improved innovation in wearable technology through the use of internet-enabled devices.

“As FTNx moves into an operational comms network, we will see the delivery of a modern network carrying all the safety critical services required. This includes data delivery that will be used to analyse conditions, predict events and generate information remotely. In future, this will provide smart infrastructure management for the industry and help to minimise the time deployed for engineers trackside in high risk environments.”

However, FTNx alone isn’t capable of delivering future growth for the industry. For it to be a success, it must be coupled with radio-based technology. Optical networks must collaborate to create an infrastructure capable of doing and providing more value for both the consumer and the rail operators.

As the network becomes more sophisticated, with more connected devices and access points present across remote locations, so does the opportunity to gain access to sensitive systems, information and critical controls. The introduction of M2M (machine to machine) working, or IoT (Internet of Things), increases the points of access over the network significantly, especially where trackside sensors are located in remote locations with limited physical security and protection.

A new set of security procedures to safeguard the network is crucial along with an understanding of the technologies involved. The challenge is balancing this implementation of new technologies, while continuing to support the railways’ existing services and safety systems.

The future of the UK’s rail industry will involve the connection of a significant number of devices across the network as Network Rail works with operators to form a digitisation strategy. This will make data and information more widely available, from Wi-Fi on trains to the wider asset management system.

FTNx brings a high capacity, resilient and secure network to the UK rail industry. A programme of huge scale and complexity, it has the power to revolutionise the rail industry. Indeed, FTNx is far more than a mere network – it is the catalyst for evolution in network technologies.

Girl on platform

Delivering ETCS

On a rail network that is already at capacity, the best way to meet demand is to implement technologies that will enable more trains to run on existing tracks. ETCS, the upgrade tasked with the delivery of this target, has received a lot of attention in Rail Engineer and elsewhere. Understandably so, as it is fundamental to the industry’s vision.

A signalling system which has been developed across Europe to allow trains to travel between different countries without the requirement to change signalling systems or locomotives, ETCS also allows drivers to always run at an optimally safe speed. This will help more trains run faster and recover from delays quicker, delivering

an estimated 40% saving over conventional systems. In the future, trains will only start and stop from stations, rather than from signals. It will enable the industry to increase the safety, reliability and capacity of the network to meet growing journey demand.

Additionally, the move will deliver significant safety improvements in a predicted 80% reduction in trains passing red signals and a 50% reduction in trackside signal maintenance. This will relieve much of the current pressure on the network with regards to systems failures. Much of the UK’s current railway signalling is bolted onto older technology. Indeed, some areas are still controlled manually by signallers from signal boxes, who pull levers connected to semaphore arms.

The shift to ETCS embodies Network Rail’s new emphasis on telecoms and signalling, as well as its willingness to work more closely with technological integrators to reinvent the industry. Pearce continued: “We’ve seen Network Rail really grab the significance of telecoms over the last few years. The body has changed its approach within the telecoms industry, and companies such as ours have become far more involved.”

ETCS: the Crossrail enabler

ADComms is working with Network Rail to install one of the first functioning ETCS- compliant systems across Heathrow Airport’s rail tunnel infrastructure. This will extend GSM-R coverage from the Great Western main line into Heathrow’s tunnels, from the portal entry to the central terminal through Terminals 4 and 5. As a component of the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS), this will allow ETCS level 2 signalling to be introduced. The installation is essential for the introduction of Crossrail services through to Heathrow Airport.

The existing Cab Secure Radio (CSR) currently in place will be replaced by GSM-R as a means of allowing communication between signaller and driver on the line. As Crossrail trains are only fitted with GSM-R, the successful completion of this project will allow Crossrail to deliver on its pledge to provide ten trains every hour on the Great Western main line at peak time.

Using newer and longer electric trains, passengers will experience a quicker, cleaner, smoother and quieter journey, in stark comparison to the current diesel trains which are used west of Paddington. Overcrowding on board will also be significantly reduced thanks to the additional line capacity which the upgrade will allow.

Scheduled to complete in July 2016, this is an important project which will enable Crossrail trains to operate. The project will involve the installation of 15,000 metres of leaky feeder technology, 15,000 metres of fibre, nine repeaters and antennae at the tunnel portal and the stations within the tunnel infrastructure.

Vital next steps

Rail users will undoubtedly benefit from the implementation of programmes such as FTNx. However, delivering such a technological improvement to the UK rail network is not without its challenges, particularly given the skills shortages faced by the industry.

For these programmes to be successful, technological integration is a vital next step. Effective data communication needs a top-class telecoms network at its heart. Greater investment in telecoms infrastructure is also crucial.

Moving to ETCS and FTNx is a huge change for the rail industry that will enable a much-needed capacity increase. These will make the railways a safer and more secure environment for its workforce to navigate – welcome developments the industry deserves. The UK’s new breed of IT infrastructural engineers is more than qualified to mitigate this exciting period of change and development.

Written by Mike Hewitt, head of next generation networks at ADComms (Alan Dick Communications)